Religious Freedom Extends to Schools

Article excerpt

Religion is too important in our history and our heritage for us to keep it out of our schools . . . (I)t shouldn't be demanded, but as long as it is not sponsored by school officials and doesn't interfere with other children's rights, it mustn't be denied. - President Bill Clinton July 12, 1995

As the new school year approaches, one of the most contentious issues that may be faced by teachers and principles is religion's place in our schools. In a speech last month at James Madison High School in Vienna, Va., President Bill Clinton set forth his views on what has long been a confusing and often divisive issue for many Americans.

Through my talks with educators, parents, students and religious leaders over the past two years, I have become increasingly aware of the need to find common ground on religious expression and religious freedom in our schools. I believe we Americans are spiritual people, and we express our faith in many different ways. But many Americans are frustrated because, when it comes to religious freedom in our schools, they are confused about what is and is not permissible. For too long, Americans have thought that separation of church and state meant children must check their religious beliefs and expression at the schoolhouse door. That is wrong.

As the president said, nothing in the First Amendment "converts our schools into religion-free zones."

With respect to religion, the First Amendment imposes two equally important obligations on public school officials. First, schools may not forbid students acting on their own to express their religious views solely because those views are of a religious nature, and schools may not discriminate against private religious expression by students. Rather, schools must give students the same right to engage in religious activity as they have to engage in other comparable activity.

This means students can pray voluntarily in a non-disruptive manner, say grace over lunch, have a Bible at school and read it in study hall and express their religious beliefs in their homework, artwork and other written and oral assignments when appropriate to the lesson. In addition, students can meet on school grounds when other clubs meet and distribute religious literature on the same terms as other student literature unrelated to the curriculum is distributed. …